Data Detachment

People are hyper-conscious of privacy – but are not always changing their habits

By Tom Novak, Senior Behavioural Analyst, Canvas8

Despite a persistent sense of unease about the amount of data that tech firms harvest, many people seem unwilling to alter their online habits, accepting that they’ll have little privacy on the web. The promise of a personalised digital experience is part of the reason why they casually cede their info, but new forms of data gathering may incite a backlash from certain groups.

Apathetic youth

A Morning Consult survey carried out in late 2022 highlighted Gen Z’s ambivalence towards targeted ads – 56% said that receiving personalised ads on social media can sometimes invade their privacy depending on the context, while 11% stated that it’s never an invasion of privacy. These lenient attitudes to privacy were emphasised in another study showing that 57% of Zers would happily use technology with a mix of a few security downsides and clear benefits, such as practical features that fit into their daily routines. The frequency of data leaks in the past decade has led many Gen Zers to think that breaches are just a normal part of life online, so they’re not surprised when they occur. What’s more, many feel that privacy concerns around platforms such as TikTok are overblown for political reasons. “While I do understand the concern around not knowing where your data is going, that’s not a TikTok-specific thing and all social media apps collect your data,” said one college student to The New York Times.

Specific concerns

The safety of everyday digital data may not concern many people, but there are specific types of information that will get alarm bells ringing. The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US prompted some women to delete period tracking apps out of fear that they shared data with third parties like the government. Meanwhile, facial recognition software – as tested in Dubai to pay at grocery stores – is raising concerns about the ever-expanding ways in which companies gather (and exploit) people’s information. Indeed, the Read app for Zoom, which harnesses AI to measure the engagement and sentiment of meeting attendees, is drawing attention to how advanced data collection tools may spawn new forms of ‘bossware’. A backlash to data harvesting practices is already underway, with Indian Railways forced to withdraw plans to monetise its customer data after a public uproar, while Instagram was dealt a $402 million fine for mishandling the personal data of Irish teenagers who’d set up online stores. Parents, in particular, are conscious of how their reliance on tech may open them up to privacy leaks, and many are growing worried about their ability to foster digital literacy, with two in five saying they don’t feel confident talking about different tech-related topics with their kids.

Big Tech expectations

As a result, people are putting the onus on tech firms to better manage data and engage people around how it’s used. “On the individual side or society side, we have to say, ‘Hey, we’ve had enough. What are you going to do to help protect our privacy and security?’” says Reginé Gilbert, a user experience designer and educator.

Algorithmic anxiety has become a focal point for many people who feel uneasy that personal data-led recommendations shape a growing number of their decisions both online and in real life. A third of American adults think that users have no control over what they see on social media, highlighting how opaque data-gathering practices can remove a sense of agency online. That’s partly why Mastodon is boosting user privacy via a decentralised, ad-free structure that’s distributed across thousands of independent servers. By contrast, Spotify is actively engaging users with their data and making this an enjoyable experience that feels ‘humanised’ and useful.